Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” we say at funerals. Why?
Dust makes sense. Human beings are dust animated by the breath of God (Gen. 2:7). Since Adam’s fall, we return to the ground: “you will return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; dust you are, and to dust you will return” (Gen. 3:19). Dead bodies literally disintegrate into the “dust of death” (Ps. 22:15). We move from dust to dust.
In Scripture, rising from dust is resurrection. Abram’s seed is risen dust (Gen. 13:16), the Lord brings up the poor from the dust (1 Sam. 2:8), Baasha is raised from dust to Israel’s throne (1 Kings 16:2), though he soon heads back to where he came from. In mourning, ancient Israelites throw dust on their heads as a symbol of death (Lam. 2:10; Ezek. 27:30) and a plea to the God who wakes those who sleep in dust (Dan. 12:2). In the end, humanity will reach its destiny, burnished into the glorified dust, the gold and gemstones of new Jerusalem (cf. Rev. 21).
But ashes? Can we make biblical sense of “ashes to ashes” (not a biblical phrase)?
Are we perhaps made of ash? Abraham seems to think so. Humbling himself as he prays for Sodom, Abraham concedes he has no right to speak to the Lord, being “dust and ashes” (in Hebrew, the alliterative phrase ‘aphar va’epher). He identifies with the city that will soon be turned to ash. Like dust, ash is a ritual symbol of death. When the king of Nineveh hears Jonah’s warnings, he repents. In a neat chiasm, Jonah 3:6 tells us that he a) rises from his throne, b) lays aside his royal robe, b’) covers himself with sackcloth, and a’) sits in ashes. An ashen seat is an un-throne, as the king abdicates in deference to Israel’s high King, Yahweh. Isaiah 61:3 points in a similar direction. Returning exiles receive garlands in place of ashes, oil instead of mourning. Kings and feast-goers are anointed with oil and crowned with garlands, so ash on the head is the anti-glory of defeat and ruin.
But ash isn’t as straightforward a symbol of death as dust is. A decaying body literally turns to dust; unless cremated, it doesn’t turn to ash. Ancient Israelites didn’t cremate their dead. They buried dead bodies, uniting them to the promised land. The dead “gathered to the fathers” in hope that, one day, living and dead would assemble as one Israel in the presence of God.
We can ask the question this way: If ashes are the residue of an expired life, what must life be? In the Bible, ash isn’t an ingredient of a human being, but the residue of something burned—bulls, sheep, and goats consumed on the altar, a heifer burned to concoct waters of purification (Num. 19:9-10). “Fatty ash” from sacrificed animals accumulates on the bronze altar, is scooped out and piled in the east of the tabernacle court, then removed outside the camp (Lev. 1:16; 6:10-11). If we become ash in death, it’s because we’re sacrifices in life. If we become ash, life must be a form of burning.
This adds a dimension to Isaiah’s contrast between ash and anointing oil. Anointed with oil, a king or priest is a “lamp” to his people, illuminating, exposing secrets, guiding, giving life and health. But he lives toward ash, since his very life-giving consumes his life. Shakespeare captures the point in Sonnet 73:
In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consumed with that which it was nourish'd by.
The fire of life gets consumed by the fuel that nourishes it. An anointed one turns to ash not because he dies but because he has lived.
Last week, Christians throughout the world entered the season of Lent with a cross of ash on their foreheads. It’s a memorial of death, a sign of mourning for sin, a cry of dereliction. By it, we mark our union with Christ’s sacrifice. But we’d be mistaken to live forever in Lent. In Christ, we’re already raised from the ash heap, even in Lent. We’ve already moved beyond Lent to Easter and Pentecost, when the Spirit stokes up tongues of fire on the apostles’ heads. Anointed by the Spirit, we become living sacrifices, crowned with flame, not ash, and burning like the burning bush— burning, but not consumed.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.